Anti-government demonstrations rise in Syria

Syrian nationals living in Jordan shout slogans against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad during a demonstration in front of the Syrian embassy in Amman on April 17, 2011 as Syria was hit by new anti-regime protests.

Kai Ryssdal: The headline news from the Middle East recently has been Libya, of course. But the economics of the region are helping the protests spread to the north and to the east. Syrian President Bashar al-Assad announced an end to a 50-year-old emergency law yesterday. It gave the government almost unlimited powers to put down dissent. Protesters aren't buying it, though. Anti-government demonstrations continued across the country today. There's one planned for Friday that could see the biggest turnouts so far.

Fred Lawson teaches government at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. He's written about and studied Syria for years, and we've got him on the line. Fred Lawson, good to talk to you.

Fred Lawson: Pleasure to be here.

Ryssdal: Give us the thumbnail sketch, would you, as we get going here, of the Syrian economy -- what drives it, and what, if anything, keeps it going?

Lawson: Syria has a comparatively diversified economy. Unlike some countries of the Middle East and unlike the paradigmatic oil-producing countries, Syria has a relatively large manufacturing sector, it has agriculture, it has trade. And it even had a little bit of oil up until recent years.

Ryssdal: So these protests that are happening now, are they economically the same as the ones in Egypt and Tunisia that we've seen across the region, with large numbers of unemployed youth, with little economic opportunity for advancement -- is that what's happening?

Lawson: That's an important component of what's happening, I think. One part of the economic underlay is that where the revolts first broke out in Syria, were provincial areas that are relatively poor, even compared to other parts of Syria. I'm very intrigued by what's taking place in Homs right at the moment, because Homs, which is the new center of the opposition is an old-line industrial town. It's the place where many of the state factories were set up, has large trade unions present. And it wouldn't surprise me if some of those old trade unionists have found their state-run companies being undercut by new private sector companies or finding their production undercut by imported products. And so the economic future in Homs may look particularly bleak right at the moment.

Ryssdal: Is this Syrian economy state-controlled the same way that the Egyptian economy was, where the army was so involved and where to do any business there you had to sort of had to be in league with the government somehow?

Lawson: As perhaps in Egypt, in Syria, important powerful figures with close ties to the president have consolidated large economic empires over the last five or 10 years. And in that sense, there's a real overlap between these powerful individuals and government control over the economy.

Ryssdal: What's the U.S. economic exposure in Syria -- almost none, right?

Lawson: Almost none. There are severe sanctions on any U.S. commercial relations or financial relations with Syria. And a very interesting case, the Syrian national airline is flying increasingly obsolete American aircraft, and was looking desperately for spare parts and upgrading about a year, year and a half ago, and was denied any access to U.S. spare parts. And the Syrians then turned to Russian aircraft to replace the American aircraft in the Syrian national fleet. So there's really not much contact, and therefore not much leverage -- economic leverage -- that the United States has with Syria.

Ryssdal: What happens if these protests are successful and President Assad is forced from office? What happens to the economy and what happens to how things run?

Lawson: I think a crucial question is, what might happen after the regime gets overturned with regard to outside investors. American investment has been stifled for the last 15, 20 years. European investment has been relatively low. Syria has gotten some outside investment from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia. The real question, where might new resources come into the country if the present regime gets overturned?

Ryssdal: Fred Lawson is a professor of government at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. His most recent book is one he edited, it's called, "Demystifying Syria." Fred, thanks a lot.

Lawson: My pleasure, thank you.

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